The Journey Continues

For the past ten years I have lived and worked in the beautiful state of Virginia.  Unfortunately, that time will be coming to an end this summer as my wife and I transition to a new life in Boston.  This is somewhat of an unexpected move.  We’ve been talking about moving for a couple of years now, but with a wonderful career opportunity having been offered to my wife, that timetable has been pushed forward.  Both of us love the city of Boston.  It’s a big move for both of us and it is not going to be easy to leave Virginia.

We moved to Virginia in 2000 and I have enjoyed every minute of it.  I’ve been lucky enough to work at a school that has nurtured me both as a teacher and as a historian.  My school encouraged me to go back to school for a second M.A. degree and has always encouraged and supported my teaching and writing projects outside of school.  How many people can honestly say that their place of employment allows them to do what they truly love.  My students continue to bring me great joy, but the toughest part of this move will be leaving my colleagues.  They are an inspiration to me and serve as role models for what it means to live the life of a teacher and adviser.

It goes without saying that I am also going to miss the rich history that Virginia offers.  Most of my friendships were made through a shared passion for the study and teaching of Virginia history.  It’s worth repeating that it is this history that has defined my sense of home and place.  It may sound a bit corny, but I also feel like I am leaving a list of long-departed “friends” that have helped me to better understand where I fit into this rich narrative called American history.

So, what’s next?  When I first learned that we would be moving I scrambled to secure a new teaching position.  I still love the classroom.  About a week ago it occurred to me that this may not be the best decision.  Boston has plenty of excellent private schools, but it also has a vibrant public history scene.  One of the things that I’ve enjoyed over the past few years is the opportunity to work with history teachers and historic sites.  With this in mind I’ve decided to take some time to get a sense of what I might do to allow me to continue to work in the area of history education/public history.  Over the past week I’ve talked with a couple of people in the Boston area and I am optimistic that I will be able to put my work as an educator, historian, and social media advocate to good use.  I couldn’t be more excited about what lies in store for me.  For those of you who live and work in the area please feel free to offer any relevant advice that you think might help me to achieve these ends.  I am open to anything and everything.

I am also going to enjoy some free time to complete a number of writing projects, including the black Confederate book.  The research is going well and I am confident that the right book will not only help to move the discussion forward, but will sell well.  The most exciting part of the move is the chance to sink my teeth into the history of Massachusetts.  I am most passionate about the history that surrounds me so I have no doubt that within a short period of time I will come to embrace the history in the same way that I did Virginia’s history.   I’ve thought about writing a memory study of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  There is plenty of material on the history leading up to its dedication in 1897, but very little on the twentieth century.  Oh, and I hear they have a great deal of Revolutionary War history up there as well. :)

What does this mean for Civil War Memory?  I think this is a wonderful opportunity to expand the focus of this blog.  I am looking forward to exploring how the Civil War is remembered and commemorated in New England, which, I suspect, will broaden my readership and advance the overall mission of this site.  And, yes, you can expect some commentary concerning that other period in American history that some claim to be important.

The most difficult part of this move is going to be the challenge of rooting for Boston sports teams given that I am a life long Philly fan.  I tried to root for the Celtics on Saturday against the Miami Heat.  The challenge was made easier because they were playing the Heat, but I anticipate future difficulties.  My wife wondered why Boston had two basketball teams.  I had to explain that one was a baseball team.  Yes, there are going to be a number of challenges involved in this move.

As always, thanks to all of you for your continued support.

The Seven Days Ballad

YouTube is probably the most popular social networking tool currently being utilized in history classrooms across the country.  The vast majority of them are simply put, horrible.  They reflect very little understanding of the medium by the student as well as their teachers.  In my view it’s the clearest example of what is wrong with the way history teachers utilize social media in the classroom.  While there has clearly been a push to embrace these tools over the past few years, many teachers have not thought enough about how they enhance students’ understanding of the past as well as the analytical skills involved.  Once in a while, however, a video stands out.  In this case two students offer a visual representation of the Seven Days Battles accompanied by a little ballad.  It’s clever and fun.

Black Confederates in a 7th Grade Classroom?

Yesterday I had a wonderful phone conversation with a 7th grade history teacher from Boston.  The subject of black soldiers in the Confederate army came up in his class as part of a discussion of USCTs.  The teacher promised the class that he would look for information, which led him to my recent NYTs editorial.  From there he decided to contact me directly.  I offered him what I consider to be the accepted scholarly consensus and then we discussed various resources that could be used in class.  The first thing I suggested was the UVA case study of the doctored image of the Louisiana Native Guard.  From there I directed him to my Black Confederate Resources page and my recent screencast reviews of two websites.

So, it looks like a class of 7th graders will be introduced to issues of media literacy via my two screencasts, the ease with which images can be distorted, and a short video by Bruce Levine from the BC Resources page.  Yes, I am tooting my own horn, but I couldn’t be more pleased that the hard work that I put into this site is finding its way into history classrooms around the country.

What’s Wrong With the Black Confederate Debate?

Photoshopped image of Louisiana Native Guard

Brooks Simpson has chosen to wade into the mire that is the black Confederate “debate”.  In his most recent post he surveys a short list of the standard primary sources that have been used to prove the existence of black men in the Confederate army.  As Brooks notes, they are all problematic for any number of reasons, but at the end of post he offers the following:

But there does appear to be a pattern of distortion, deception, and deceit in the use of these pieces of evidence to make a case for the presence of African Americans in the Confederate army as willing participants in fighting for the cause of southern independence.

Why do you think that is?  What conclusions might we draw?  Could you explain why these examples are still used by people who claim a fidelity to historical accuracy?  After all, they offer no defense of their use of these examples in light of the information presented.  They simply continue to present the examples.

Deception is clearly involved in the case of the Photoshopped image of the Louisiana Native Guard, but the cut and paste references to Frederick Douglass, Lewis Steiner, Ed Bearrs, that populate so many websites beg for a different response.  I don’t even think that we need to fall back on the need to demonstrate that slavery was not central to the Confederate experience and the Civil War more generally.  In the end, what this reflects is an inability to engage in historical analysis.  I am going to sound like an elitist for saying this but so be it: Many of these people are simply not well read in the history of slavery, the social and cultural dynamic within the Confederate army, and the politics of the Confederate government.

Consider the following examples of how a few folks choose to define their terms:

“So what is the definition of a body servant?  A body servant is a gentleman’s gentleman.  These African-American men, whether freedmen or slaves, dedicated their lives to the service of men who in some form or fashion shaped the United States of America.  In 21st century vernacular the role is analogous to a position known as an executive assistant—a position today that requires a college Bachelors Degree or equivalent level experience.  Ask any salesman. You cannot secure an appointment with a senior executive without getting approval from his or her  executive assistant.” — Anne DeWitt

What is a black Confederate?

“A person of color whose heart and beliefs lie to the South. There are people who ask why Civil war headstones don’t stat that, the answer is the same reason modern day ones don’t. I would not count a minority who didn’t love the South for better or worse or during the war wanted to flee.” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

“The definitions already offered as to what constitutes a black Confederate reflect my view: ANY person of color, that served the Confederate States in defense of their homeland – officially enlisted or not – if they in any way attempted to defend their Southern homeland against the illegal invaders (Union troops). I don’t know how you can be more definitive than that. Soldiers don’t just define those on the front lines (although there were many black Confederates in that position), they include all support troops as well. The guys on the front line could not perform their duties without those support troops. Those working in pistol factories as well, they were making the weapons for the front line personnel. That’s just common sense to me!” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

“BLACK CONFEDERATES INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO BLACK PEOPLE PAID PENSIONS BY SOUTHRON STATES AFTER THE WAR…….” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

“(1) Any… slave or free Black Southerner who preformed a service for the Confederate Military and in doing so saw military action and actively took up arms in defense of the South, or the Confederate military (or any individual in it) at the risk of his own life against the Union invaders. (2) Any slave or free Black Southerner who wore the Confederate uniform and in doing so continued to preform whatever services with a Confederate regiment even beyond the requirements of their services (specifically in regards to a slave who continued to serve beyond the death of their white master with distinction).   (3) Any slave or free Black Southerner who was interred in a Union Prisoner of War camp, who endured the indignities and hardships of imprisonment and remained loyal to the Confederate cause of the South specifically, defying all attempts on the part of his captors to take the oath of loyalty to the Union.” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

Most of these descriptions are so vague that they are meaningless.  What we have here is not a debate about whether free and enslaved blacks served as soldiers in the Confederate army.  The folks referenced above are not engaged in deception; rather, they simply do not understand the relevant history nor do they understand how to engage in historical analysis.

Vanessa Williams’s Civil War

I don’t mind admitting that I am a sucker for the recent string of television shows that trace the family histories of our favorite celebrities.  They perform an important function within the muck and mire that is popular entertainment.  Most importantly, they present the study of history as an exciting process that often leads to meaningful self discovery.  This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows Vanessa Williams as she searches for information about her great-great grandfather, who served in the USCTs during the Civil War.  Williams also learns that an ancestor served in the Tennessee legislature in the 1880s and even introduced legislation mandating public education.  All in all we have here another strong emancipationist narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has made it into our mainstream culture.